Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Melvin And Me

"I've never had a bad night!"

Yup, that's what Mel Lewis said, as stated by John Riley in "Beyond Bop Drumming." At the time, John thought it seemed like a bit of hubris, but Mel had a very good explanation. You see, Mel strove to be such a proficient player that even on an off night he was still plenty good at his job.

Mel said that his role was to keep the band swinging regardless of his personal situation. And that's how it should be: You really need to have more than enough ability to do the job required. Mel also confided that he was the only one who was ever aware of when he was not on form. That’s a pretty good record.

I had an off night recently. Everything went OK at the gig, and we got very good feedback from the audience -- and the owner (no small accomplishment). But I was not happy with my playing. It happens. The interesting thing is that I recorded our sets that night. When I listened to the tracks a few days later, everything sounded fine, and I would never have guessed I was out of sorts. So, was it truly a bad night?

John Riley goes on to explain that Mel's attitude is nothing more than well-earned confidence, backed up by skill, knowledge and experience. And confidence plays a big role in everything we do. Buddy Rich could be very matter-of-fact about his playing. But his point was simple. If he was playing well, why not just feel good about it? To say "I'm playing well" is a far cry from saying "I'm the greatest."

It’s important that we take pride in our work and do the best job we can, with a steadfast goal of “better than last time”. I go into every situation prepared to do the best job I possibly can, off night be damned. And if I’m having a good night, so much the better.

In a way, I suppose I could also say I too have never had a bad night, because getting out and playing automatically makes for a good night, right?

So thanks for the positive spin, Mel.

Beyond Bop Drumming by John Riley & Dan Thress

Alfred Music
ISBN-10: 1576236099
ISBN-13: 9781576236093

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Time to Get Creative

I‘ve been many things in my life:  artist, sculptor, astronaut, cowboy, race car driver. I don't do very many of these things these days. I sold my slot car set years ago, my father put my “space ship” out in the garbage, and various other setbacks -- all victims of my moving on from childhood.

The way we approach life as a child is so very different from how we often end up. There was a time when, not only were we all creative, we were enthusiastic about it. I was a great cowboy. I was also quite good at drawing along with that guy who was on TV Tuesdays after school.

The reality, of course, is that most were passing interests. Others were simply opportunistic -- being an astronaut or submarine captain was only possible between appliance delivery and garbage day. As we mature, we tend to lose the urge to jump into practically anything interesting. But growing out of childhood’s creative theme park is one thing. How many of us have let ourselves grow out of creativity all together?

This brings to mind the adage “You don't stop playing because you get old. You get old because you stop playing”. The same might be said of creativity.  Maybe we don't stop being creative because we're not very good at it, we're not very good at it because we stopped being creative.

So why do we stop playing or stop creating? Several reasons. One culprit is our internal critic. If we compare our results to some ideal and feel it doesn't measure up, the inner critic might not let us rest until we give up in despair.

An even more insidious factor is systematic discouragement. Your parents told you not to do X. Your friends mocked you because you liked Y. Teachers want you to do it their way, as does your boss. And so, as we enter the adult world, we may have lost touch with our creativity.  Or maybe we just got out of the habit.

The good news is that all your creativity is still there, perfectly intact. You just have to get reacquainted with it. You have my permission.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Many Ways to Kick a Drum

Forget the 'flat foot vs. toe' argument. When it comes to working the bass drum foot pedal, pretty much anything goes. All of the pedal techniques listed below have advantages and limitations. My advice is to try them all, as each one can bring something worthwhile to your bass drum execution. Note that some pedals may not be suitable for certain techniques.
Flat Foot
The most basic of techniques, the foot remains flat on the foot plate at all times. This is a good choice for slow and low volume playing, although it can deliver respectable volume and speed. It also provides excellent control over rebound.Plus some players prefer having a bit of contact with the floor.

Toe Only
The simplest approach to toe technique is to keep the ankle relatively fixed and use your leg muscles to do the work ... i.e. a stomp. This delivers lots of volume and can be less fatiguing but it's limited in terms of speed and articulation.

Heel Up
This technique uses mostly the ankle, with the upper leg joining in with a bounce. With the heel about 1 inch from the heel plate, tap with the toe. Some practitioners like to swing the heel from side to side between strokes.

Moeller ... sort of
While Mr. Moeller never wrote about working with pedals, his basic principle can still be applied. The next two styles use a Moeller-like double kick that can propel you to fabulous speeds once mastered.

1. Steve Gadd Kick
This technique begins with the toe near the middle of the foot board with the heel slightly raised. Tap the pedal with the toe and immediately shift the foot forward, catching and kicking the pedal during the rebound. Great for doubles, shuffles and sambas.

2. Heel-toe/Two Step

This one is a bit like the old 'heel-toe' hi-hat technique. The first note is played on the back half of the pedal with the heel. The second note is played by catching the footboard on the rebound by dropping the toe. The resulting rocking motion is great for doubles, triples, and raw speed. Almost required for some metal music.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Young Ambition

When I was a young professional musician, I had a reputation of being extravagant. It's a bit ironic because I'm a total cheap-skate. While I was making a pretty good living from drums, I still had to live frugally. I also had to allocated funds carefully.

The main areas of contention were instruments and transportation. You see, I had very expensive drums and a fairly expensive car, whereas many of my peers made do with lesser equipment. There's a simple reason for that: TCB.

I knew that I would have to approach my playing career as a business, so I invested in my infrastructure: the things that helped me be more professional, and therefore more desirable and more valuable. I decided that other things could wait while I was building my business.

It's oft said that the key to success is showing up. That's hard to do if you don't have reliable transportation. A couple of early experiences cured me of not having my own car. I did an audition making several trips carrying my drums on a Honda motorbike (it was only a block and a half from my house, but still a stupid idea). The other was a borrowed car that broke down in mid-winter. I had chill blains in my hands for years.

My drums are the tools of my trade, so why would I compromise my job by having inadequate equipment? Reliability is paramount, and cheap stands and parts may not hold up. I also want to play and sound my best, so I always had the best instruments I could afford.

The impression we make when we arrive in a decent vehicle and unload a good looking drum set says a lot about how we approach the job. If you care enough to invest in equipment, then you must care about the music. If you have a decent car, it shows that you value both reliability and punctuality. It all becomes part of your branding and your professionalism.

Your brand image extends to your wardrobe. The business gurus say to dress better than the job (even if it means wearing a tie). Our band likes to have a bit of fun with our appearance, and dressing for the occasion has become an interesting and rewarding part of the job.

So, what kind of 'brand identity' are you creating?

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Different Strokes Part III - The “Other” Strokes

There is no theme here, just techniques that don't fit neatly into the previous groupings. Rather than fringe techniques, these are solid tools that you may already be familiar with.

1. Wrist Stroke
Down, up, and down-up stokes are executed using just the wrists, with the fingers holding the stick firmly against the hand. Wrist strokes should not be your stroke of choice. Although good for power, they tend to limit speed and articulation and can lead to wrist problems.
2. Finger Stroke
A stroke can be executed by simply "flicking' the sticks with the fingers, keeping the wrist and arm movement to a minimum. Bounce and dribble strokes are often done using just the fingers. (Also see Skip Stroke in Part I.)

3. Forearm Stroke
In general, forearm strokes are not very useful, but there are two situations where they’re indispensable. To do a military-style buzz roll or a scratch roll, press the stick down using the forearms while keeping the wrist steady and guide the sticks with the fingers to produce the buzz.
The other instance of forearm technique is the blast roll or 'free-hand' technique. Rather than attempt to describe it, here’s Johnnie Rabb on the subject:

4. Whipping Stroke (Gladstone Technique)
Billy Gladstone (1893-1961) brought this technique to the fore while on the job at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. Begin by lifting the stick to eye level using the entire arm, and then bring it down using a whipping or wave-like motion. Rebound is optional at the end of the stroke, depending on need. This stroke delivers maximum power and volume.

5. Skip Stroke
I’ve not seen any sort of documentation on this one*. While its main application is in a fast swing ride, it can be used elsewhere. Begin by throwing the stick tip against a ride cymbal with a slight rebound -- 2 to 4 inches only, opening the 2nd through 4th fingers on contact. Then pull the fingers back to quickly close your hand. with practice, you can ‘squeeze out’ two more notes (3 in total) using a 'stutter' motion and a snap: Duh-duh-Dum. The key is to use the fingers in a pulling motion to execute multiple strokes. So throw-pull-snap / becomes &-uh 1.

* There is an online video that presents it as the “Tony Williams Up-tempo Ride”, though the technique did not originate with Tony:

* Use lift or rebound. Never pull your sticks up into position.
* When making a stroke, think stick velocity rather than force.
* Relax. Even when playing full tilt, keep your hands and arms as relaxed as you can.
* Tune and position your drums so they provide as much assistance as possible (for your preferred tonal range).